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Mary Reid Kelley in The New York Times

Great is what this art is, yet it raises doubts about whether any art, however “great,” can be considered exempt from moral scrutiny.

By Holland Cotter

Aug. 12, 2021, 1:40 p.m. ET

BOSTON — With its small supernova of a show, “Titian: Women, Myth & Power,” the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here scores an art historical coup that institutions many times its size should envy, and audiences, hungry for old master dazzle, can count themselves lucky to see. Yet the same exhibition raises troubling questions about how, in art from the distant past viewed through the lens of the political present, aesthetics and ethics can clash.

The show first appeared at the National Gallery in London, moved on to the Museo del Prado in Madrid, and is making its last, and only American stop at the Gardner. At its core is a cycle of six monumental oil paintings of mythological scenes that Titian, who died in Venice in 1576, produced, late in his career, for the Spanish king Philip II.

Originally displayed in a single room in the imperial palace in Madrid, the pictures were gradually dispersed. One stayed in Spain; four went to England; and, in 1896, one ended up in Boston, initially in the Beacon Street drawing room of the local art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner, then in her faux-palazzo on the Fenway. Its arrival detonated an explosion of buzz. It was widely advertised as the most expensive painting in the United States (Gardner bought it for what was then about $100,000, or around $3.2 million today), which automatically made it, for some, the greatest painting anywhere.

It was titled “The Rape of Europa,” and its theme — a young woman, a Phoenician princess, is abducted and forcibly impregnated by a god in disguise — can’t help but put us on red alerts today, when accusations and verified reports of sexual assault on women appear almost daily in the news. In fact, the whole cycle, with its repeated images of gender-based power plays and exposed female flesh, invites #MeToo evaluation, and raises doubts about whether any art, however “great,” can be considered exempt from moral scrutiny.

And purely in terms of formal innovation and historical influence, great is what this art is. In 1550, when Titian first received the commission from Philip, then ruler-to-be, he was renowned throughout Europe as the most daringly expressive brush-man in the business. Unlike his Florentine peers, he let paint, stroke by stroke, have a material and emotional life of its own. In this, he was the un-Michelangelo, the contemporary he considered his only real rival.

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In Philip, Titian found a patron willing to give him high fees and creative carte blanche. And Philip found in Titian an artist prestigious enough to burnish his own self-image as world-conqueror of an empire that controlled much of Western Europe and had staked out territory in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Americas. And he found a painter who was both experimental and brand-conscious enough to generate a distinctive, forward-looking court style.

What was new about that style was summed up in the term Titian himself used to refer to the pictures in the cycle: “poesie” — poem-like paintings, in which images were also imaginative metaphors. Indeed, the cycle itself was based on a poem, “The Metamorphoses,” an episodic narrative epic by the Roman poet Ovid around A.D. 8.

It’s a wild and crazy book, a dystopian chronicle of interactions among the gods and humans set in a world that, long past any Golden Age, is settling into a condition of moral chaos. There are moments of uplift and humor, but violence is a norm, and rape, a form violence commonly takes.

It’s there in the first painting in the cycle, “Danae,” dated 1551-53 and on loan from the Wellington Collection in London. The picture tells the story of a young woman, Danae, who’s been locked in a high tower by her father to keep her away from predacious men. But the god Jupiter, a serial abuser, has found a way in from on high. He has transformed himself into a heavenly shower of sparkling gold dust, and in that form descends on Danae’s reclining nude body.

The nude, or almost nude, female form is the cycle’s repeated motif, the erotic emblem, as bright as a light beam, you can spot from wherever you stand. We see it viewed from behind in “Venus and Adonis” (from the Prado’s collection); stretched out frontally and bound with ropes in “Perseus and Andromeda” (from the Wallace Collection, London); and turned into a multi-figure tangle in two pendant paintings, “Diana and Actaeon” and “Diana and Callisto”(jointly owned by the National Gallery, London, and National Galleries of Scotland, in Edinburgh).

Only one female character, the virgin-goddess Diana, is depicted as assertive and commanding, but her actions are arbitrary and cruel. She lashes out at the young follower, the nymph Callisto, for becoming pregnant and concealing it. (Jupiter was, again, the seducer.) And in a fit of pique she condemns the young hunter Actaeon, who has stumbled upon her al fresco bathing spot, to a terrible fate: He will be transformed into a stag and chased down by his own dogs.

In each scene, Titian proves himself an ingenious dramatist, telescoping past, present and future events within a single incident. And he’s especially adept at showing a world that’s physically and psychically off-balance, with figures tilting, twisting, recoiling. This dynamic is especially pronounced in “Rape of Europa,” the last, and in some ways, most violent painting of the group.

As Ovid has it, in an account Titian carefully follows, Europa is at a seaside party with friends when Jupiter insinuates himself in the form of a snow-white bull. So docile is he that Europa crowns his head with flowers and climbs on his back. Suddenly — and this is what we see — the shore is far away and the bull is lunging toward deep water. Europa, her gown slipping off, her legs awkwardly spread, clings to his horn for balance. She looks back to her frantically waving friends, but there’s no escape.

The image is powerful. But is it “beautiful?” It is when you approach it up close which, wonderfully, you can do in the show as installed by Nathaniel Silver, the curator of the museum’s collection. Titian was one of history’s magician paint-movers. Other later ones — Velázquez, Rubens, Manet — adored him for that. Standing inches from the picture’s surface you see why: His magician’s hand is right there in dabs, flicks, swirls that barely coalesce into images, yet do.

Then you step back and get the whole painting, the big picture, and it’s a harsh one, a narrative of victimized innocence, but also — even primarily? — of erotic display, detailed in Europa’s flailing limbs; in the bull Jupiter’s avid eyes; and in the figure of a dolphin-riding putto who playfully mimics Europa’s agonized pose. Add to all this the purpose of the cycle’s making — for the delectation of a world-conquering ruler who spoke of himself in Olympian terms — and you have art with a fair share of unbeautiful features.

Increasingly, a lot of older art, if it’s going to be alive for new audiences, will need to be presented from these dual perspectives, as formally superlative creations, but also as container of difficult, often negative, histories.

The Gardner clearly understands this, as evidenced in printed texts and audio interviews that place 16th-century works in the show in the context of current cultural thinking, and in two contemporary works commissioned for the occasion. One, “Body Language,” by Barbara Kruger, hangs on the museum’s facade: a large vertical banner with magnified detail, lifted from “Diana and Actaeon,” of a muscular, tanned male leg stretched across a pale, bare female one as if pinning it down.

The other new piece is a nine-minute, black-and-white film titled “The Rape of Europa” by this year’s Gardner artists-in-residence team of Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley. Intricately thought out, it presents Europa, post-abduction and newly pregnant, as a limerick-spouting 21st-century feminist intent on asserting a creative history for women, past and present. The piece is surreally kooky, the way Ovid can be, and politically sharp as he can be, too.

But it’s Titian you’re really here for, and the starburst of paintings that, unless you caught the shows in London or Madrid, you will never have seen together before and will almost certainly never see together again. They’re challenging fare, for the excitements they generate and for the moral doubts they trigger. And they’re invaluable for the lessons they teach: We can love art for its beauties and call it out for its blindness. We can exalt it to the skies, and still wrestle it to the ground. Old or new, art is us at our best and our worst, and it really is us, with everything that means, and useful beyond fashion or price.

Titian: Women, Myth & Power

Through Jan. 2 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, (617) 566-1401,

Holland Cotter is the co-chief art critic. He writes on a wide range of art, old and new, and he has made extended trips to Africa and China. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2009.